Independent Voter Project Conference: Lawmakers Find Common Ground on Public Safety

The conversation over public safety has evolved dramatically since AB 109 (prison realignment) passed in 2011, shifting the burden of housing thousands of inmates from the state to California’s 58 counties. Of note, the lead panelists referred to many findings and recommendations from a 2013 study out of Stanford University.

The panel on Public Safety at the Independent Voter Project’s conference this year was one of 5 panels focusing on major issues facing California. The purpose of the panels was to have a substantive conversation about serious issues, beyond the larger public dialogue that often reduces issues into superficial partisan talking points.

In the discussion between correctional officers and California legislators, there was universal agreement that California’s prisoner problem is bigger and more complicated than public dialogue would suggest.

With respect to the county-by-county approach to realignment, there is a nexus between public safety, health, and mental health issues.

“There is a fight for resources and we have to understand that these different areas should not be looked at in their own boxes if we are going to use resources wisely,” a Republican assembly member suggested.

“Counties are about to start feeling the health issues and unconstitutional conditions that faced California on the state level. All we did was shift the burden, without an increase in overall resources,” a corrections representative remarked. “The counties are not equipped to handle this excess of prisoners anymore than the state was. This is going to result in more lawsuits and the same discussions. They will just take 4 or 5 years to develop.”

Unfortunately, “[w]ith the finite physical resources we have, we are just ‘churning’ the same prisoners, just in different beds. Now you have 58 counties trying to do what the state was doing … you actually create a bigger problem, although it doesn’t appear so because it’s spread out among 58 different counties.”

Some panelists suggested that a serious problem is each county counts statistics and administers everything differently, which makes any comprehensive analysis difficult.

“We have a total cluster of public safety policy … but whatever the goal is, we need to look at the infrastructure,” said a Republican legislator.

In response, a Democrat from the Central Valley said, “[s]he has it exactly right. We’ve implemented a policy trying to fix something without understanding that we have to invest in a plan. We can’t just react to situations and move the same problems to different areas.”

He continued:

“I’ve said that realignment might be good if it gives us an opportunity to realign our priorities. I don’t agree that there is a problem communicating to voters the importance of this issue and the need for funding. I do, however, think there is a problem with going to the voters without a plan to reduce recidivism and improve our rehabilitation efforts, which will in turn reduce the long-term need to spend more resources on more facilities.”

A corrections officer agreed, pointing again to the Stanford report that offers recommendations on those very issues:

“We have to deal with the system and resources we are given. I don’t know how we get the dialogue to take place at the legislative level, or the Governor’s level, to look at the real parts of the problem, but it needs to happen right away.”

“We need the resources to look at and evaluate rehabilitation programs and state and local level so we even know what is working. We need the resources to test them and analyze them in the first place,” said another corrections officer. “The problem is, when the budget is cut, these are the first things to go, so we never have a chance to even know what will work to fix the problems with the system we currently have.”

“There’s nobody getting more hurt by realignment than the Central Valley. Our legislators are an appropriate group to try and get this conversation going. We can start the conversation because we aren’t getting a fair deal in terms of appropriations, and we can turn that conversation into a bigger one about solving foundational corrections in the process,” said an Assembly member.